Have yourself an outdoorsy little Christmas


No need to stay cooped up this holiday season! Here are some ideas for families to spend Christmas in nature and make the most of these short winter days.

1. Decorate a tree outside

Pick a tree, any tree. In your back garden, on your driveway, at the end of your road, or in the middle of a forest. Go back to the same tree every year, or choose a different one every time.

Every December, the acorns hang a few Christmas ornaments on the huge sycamore in our front garden. It is the perfect excuse to climb up its bare branches and give them a little seasonal cheer.

Irish Forest School Association member Grace O’Driscoll Sinnott has an idea for when the festivities are over. ‘If you put your Christmas tree outdoors after Christmas you can drop the seeds into it and the needles hold the seeds – this is very successful’.

Santa for the wildlife

Last year for the first time, the acorns made some edible cranberry garlands that they hung on a little tree for the wild birds and animals of the Glen of the Downs, Co Wicklow. The inspiration came from this Wilder Child blog post.

Then on Christmas Eve we read the beautiful Night Tree, by Eve Bunting, about a family whose Christmas Eve tradition is to “decorate their favorite tree with popcorn, apples, tangerines, and sunflower-seed balls as a gift for the animals of the woods.”

So this year we are going to follow into that imaginary family’s footsteps and be Santa Claus for the local wildlife by providing them with a hearty Christmas dinner.

2. Go on a winter walk

There is nothing like heading out in nature on a bright winter day to blow away the cobwebs of the Christmas lock down. Just make sure to dress for the weather.

If there is snow on the ground, Lucy O’Hagan, of Wild Awake Forest School, suggests ‘heading out and looking for animal tracks in the snow, after reading Stumpa of course!’.

Last year, on the Fourth Day of Christmas, we went for a winter hike to Djouce Mountain and found a wonderland of frost, snow and ice on the Wicklow uplands.

When we came across what looked like a forzen infinity pool, complete with a panoramic view over the Vartry Lakes and the Irish Sea in the distance, Jedi decided to slide on the ice like a penguin, i.e. on his tummy!

3. Watch the sunrise

Not everybody can witness the winter solstice in Newgrange, Co Meath, when the rising sun illuminates the narrow stone passage and the inner chamber of the 5,200 year old monument. That said, it is now possible to watch it live.

But you can still head outside and watch the sunrise, or the sunset, depending on where you live, or both on the same day! No need to fall out of bed for this one – up until mid-January, the sun rises in Ireland between 8.30–9am, to set only 7 hours later, between 4–4.30pm.

You could also walk the lesser-known Monk’s Walk in Kilmacurragh Botanic Gardens, Co Wicklow (although the gardens only open at 9am so you would miss the sunrise). This ancient tunnel of century-old yew trees is aligned to face the rising sun of the winter solstice. 


4. Go stargazing

For Wicklow Bound author Seán Ó Súilleabháin, winter is the ideal time of year to go stargazing. ‘In the summer, you have to stay up until after midnight to catch a glimpse of something unusual in the night sky, but for the winter sky such late nights are not necessary.’ 

With no need to wait until way past bedtime to marvel at the beauty of the night sky, wrap up warm, very warm, bring your torch, and take the kids out for a starlit adventure.

5. Have a winter picnic 

Here is a fool-proof recipe for al fresco seasonal cheer. 

Pack your family’s favourite Christmas treats – mince pies, gingerbread men, tangerines, etc.
Prepare a flask of hot chocolate and/or warm mulled juice.
Bring some ornaments, fairy lights, and some festive tunes.
Walk to your favourite spot in the woods. (Torches may be needed for the way back.)

Beach or forest

Alternatively, you could head down to the beach.

‘If you go for a winter picnic, mats or kneeling pads are great to keep your bottom warm!’ advises Caroline Young, another IFSA member.

In the fading December light, we had a magical outdoor Christmas party at the Octagon, in the Glen of the Downs, Co Wicklow. While Brian and I cooked pancakes over the open fire for the very first time, the acorns played the afternoon away, gathering firewood, exploring out of sight, and making rudimentary tools and implements. Free play at its best.


6. Geocaching

How about geocaching for something different to do outdoors with the family? Sarah McLarkey, a.k.a. The Geocaching Junkie, told me about the Twelve Caches of Christmas, a series of geocaches she placed in 2014 in the south Dublin-north Wicklow area. ‘They were published one a day from 25th December for 12 days. Each one was themed with the corresponding day from the song, and all of them are still in place.’

We shall try and unearth a few of these during the twelve days of Christmas.

7. Birdwatching

Winter is the best time of year to go to the East Coast Nature Reserve (ECNR) in search of wintering wildfowl, waders, birds of prey, gulls and seabirds.

Also known as the Blackditch & Murrough Wetlands, this little known gem of the east coast of Wicklow is a wintering haven for many migratory birds, such as the widgeon, a species of duck and currently the most common visitor in the flooded coastal fields. 

Niall Horan, of BirdWatch Ireland, adds, ‘Other duck species, including mallard, teal and shoveler, are also present, as are several little grebes, best seen from the main observation hide.’

Reed buntings, redwings and long-tailed tits can be quite easy to see along the boardwalks. Goldcrests, Ireland’s smallest bird species, are feeding in the coniferous trees right beside the main entrance, and both grey herons and little egrets can be seen hunting for fish at the edges of the pools.

Owls and otters

An early morning visit is best for trying to see the otters that live in and around the reserve, while an evening visit can be spectacular from the path alongside the beach, as hundreds of hooded crows gather in the fields before flying to roost together in the reserve’s woodlands. According to Niall Keogh, of BirdWatch Ireland Wicklow Branch, ‘a visit to the hides is a must to look for kingfisher as there are special perches in place for them there’. Winter is also the best time of year to see short-eared owls, which unlike other owl species hunt during the day.

The excellent field guide The Birds of Ireland is available for purchase from BirdWatch Ireland‘s online shop.



What do you do as a family to enjoy the festive season on the wild side? Please let me know by leaving a comment below.

Happy Christmas!


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4 Responses to “Have yourself an outdoorsy little Christmas

  • What a great list of wintry, christmassy things to do with nature, love the idea of decorating a random tree (with natural and edible items of course), might convince the family next year #adventurecalling

  • Fab Post!! Have a lovely Christmas. #adventurecalling

  • Watching a sunrise is so good for the soul. Wishing you and your family a wonderful Christmas and thanks for all your great posts in 2017. Annette xx

  • Some great advice and ideas here. As North Wales has had a fair bit of snow recently we’ve tended to steer clear of the mountains with the kids and instead headed to forests and beaches like you suggest. Although I’ve managed to escape into the mountains myself a couple of times.Thanks for joining us on #adventurecalling and a happy New Year.

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